Chicken - Chicken = Chicken (+ $1 Million)

This post was written by guest blogger Wyatt Galusky.*

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The future of meat? (image source)

So, it's come to this. PETA has just announced a $1 million reward for the first group to make in vitro meat edible and tasty. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have decided that, in lieu of turning the whole world veg, they will promote research into suffering and death-free means of satisfying people's "meat addictions." (Talk of the Nation: Science Friday weighed in on this too.)

I mentioned in vitro meat in a guest blog post here way back when. As a brief primer, this kind of meat cultivation bypasses such inefficiencies as bone and nerves, and goes straight for those cells - myoblasts, in my understanding - that would form muscle and seeks to grow only that (in a suitable medium, and likely scaffolded to more credibly emulate the thickness and texture of meat grown, well, in vivo). One of the foremost proponents stateside of this technology is a venture called New Harvest , but there is also plenty of interest across the pond (see, for example, the In Vitro Meat Symposium held earlier this month in Norway, a function sponsored by the In Vitro Meat Consortium).

According to William Saletan, the science reporter over at, PETA has taken some flack for this from those otherwise sympathetic to PETA's cause. Saletan, a self-avowed "big fan of lab meat," commends the group for taking this plunge, eschewing the purity of the position of eat no animal for the compromise of animal-less meat. Pragmatic, and still ethically palatable. Pardon the pun.

The arguments surrounding in vitro meat have also extended beyond the technical, and into the pragmatic and ecologically, socially, and ethically desirable. Basically, the idea is to identify the problems associated with current industrialized animal production processes - inefficiencies of production (feed-to-finished weight ratio), ecological harm from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in terms of waste and antibiotics, pain to sentient animals, etc. - and catalogue the ways that this technology circumvents them. Plus the added bonus of greater control of protein/fat content and environment. Beyond the strong pro-arguments, people tend to argue that animals will still have to die for this technology to work, or it never will work in the sense of really replacing the mouth feel and culinary pleasure of "real" steak, or who cares anyway? Animals are yummy. Period. (Lots of redundancy there, but how can I be sure you read "period" rather than just see . and stop?)

I'm not a big fan of lab meat, but am willing to engage in meaningful discussion here with people who might be invested. I gave part of my reasoning in the previous blog reference above. But I've been trying to work out more precisely what elements of the issue need to be given some thought, at least. We discussed this technology in a class I teach. In the discussion I tried to identify what I called "Infrastructural Constants" - things that in some way frame the industrialized food animal debate that we could have in this country. I came up with 6:

  1. Industrial Processes (including centralized production and distribution networks)
  2. Economic Constraints (i.e. the profit motive and economic networks of interaction)
  3. Human Culinary Preferences (the yummy factor, but also cultural food practices)
  4. Human Health (e.g. the Atkins diet)
  5. Ethical Considerations (e.g. animal sentience)
  6. The Animal Body and Behavior

I don't want to be too didactic here, so I'll leave the first five as they are there (even as they are overly simplified in that list). The sixth one, though, is worth a bit more explication. In Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, he quotes someone (I forget who) as referring to the industrial food animal as a "'protein machine with flaws.'" Those flaws, of course, emerge only in the context of the other five infrastructural givens. And to eliminate the flaws of the animal, we could seek to alter those other qualities, but it does seem easier (in a strange sense of easy) to engineer our way out of those flaws through modifications of the animal body. A protein machine still. Sans flaws.

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From a WWII Filmstrip, "More Milk for Victory," 1942 (source)

That's why in vitro meat appears so seductive, to Saletan and even to PETA. But let me briefly enumerate three of my reservations - relationships, knowledge, and energy (and those last two are intricately related). I enumerate these three in the hopes of prompting discussion.

I worry about how alienated our relationships to the beings we consume as food become when what we eat is so precisely engineered for some ideal "us." No more pleasure from "living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend," as Wendell Berry puts it.

I worry about knowledge and energy, as well - the more control we take over the processes of protein production in this context, the more we have to know and the more energy we have to supply in order to make it happen. If we identify a continuum of wild creatures who feed themselves and somehow grow to lab-grown meat where most everything has to be under the purview of humans, well, I'm not so sanguine about the prospect of knowing enough and supplying enough to not create new flaws in our protein machines. The history of science and technology seems to be with me on that score. Of course domesticated animals exist somewhere on that continuum, and I'm not suggesting a return to pure hunting and gathering. But each extreme of the continuum has it's pressures.


* For WG's bio, see this commentary on Wal-Mart and environmentalism. And then go here for his last post in a mini-series on mystery and knowledge.

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Not sure how many thoughts you are looking for, but here's a few:

1. As a biologist I can tell you that growing "fake" muscle won't happen for $1 million and is going to be hard anyway. Part of making muscle is using it -- using muscle causes damage which gets repaired through the making of more cells, etc. and though inefficient, the body is the best incubator for creating such tissues. You would need stem cells to get the muscle going which means you still need animals (as you pointed out) but to get them to grow you are going to have to add a whole lot of "stuff" to the dish, at which point is it ever going to be meat as we know it?

2. Do PETA people eat GM corn? If not, then they have a lot of nerve telling the rest of us we should be eating fake meat. Meat from a dish certainly won't be organic (probably not kosher either) so perceptually you are going to run in to problems of getting people to eat it. Through animal and plant husbandry we have been changing "nature" since we stopped hunting and gathering. If if it isn't GM corn, today's corn still isn't what "natural" corn used to be. I once asked a group of about 150 freshman students to write in a paper what they thought of purposefully modifing genetics to achieve an "improved" crop and was rather surprised at the fact that almost every single one of them said that changing genes was morally wrong. Some of the reasons they gave were a bit odd, but the take home point I got is that perceptually people seem to be ok with a farmer "naturally" selecting plants and animals, but once you start tinkering in a lab, that's bad. What, then, will the perception be of meat grown in a vat?

3. I elaborate a bit in my own blog on PETAs offer with regard to cost, which I think is something that needs to be addressed. To me, your points 1, 2 and 5 really seem linked to the question of justice. Completely industrializing the meat production process may save cows from being poorly treated, but it won't help people. Too many generally poor people around the world rely on selling chickens, etc. at market to make money. Is PETA suggesting that ALL meat designated for consumption come from a factory? If so, if this is to be global, then a lot of people will have no income. That worries me. I cannot tell from PETAs offer just how extensive their goal is -- is it only for industrialized nations who can afford the economic cost associated with fake meat, or is their goal for everyone, especially those who can affort it least?

Certainly, there are problems with the way animals are farmed, but it seems to me that more can be done to correct these problems, so much so that proposing the alternative just doesn't make sense. Biologically we have a long way to go before this would even be possible. Economically I don't think its worth it. And perceptually I think there will be huge problems. We have already become divorced from the knowledge of where our food comes from for the most part; fake meat will only make the problem worse.

Somehow, the whole notion of fake meat must screams "Soylent Green".

I worry about how alienated our relationships to the beings we consume as food become when what we eat is so precisely engineered for some ideal "us."

This is meant to be humorous, right? I mean, I don't go around having "relationships" with my meat, and frankly the idea sounds like so much new-agey mumbo jumbo. Still, to each his own and all that.

I AM however having a very hard time coming up with a conception of "good" relationship with an entity that makes it better to kill it than to not.

D -- I'd say you're bringing a very limited (one might say naive) idea of "relationship" to your reading of the post. Wherever there are two things, there is a relationship. They relate to one another. Could be how two ideas relate; could be how an idea and a place relate; could be how two people relate. But your comment makes me wonder if Mr. Galusky needs to talk back up and work on different readings of 'relationships' readers might have before jumping ahead to the more complicated points he makes. Maybe the more basic task with ethical issues like this one is to find out how people can even talk about them.

2. Do PETA people eat GM corn?

Since treating animals ethically is not contingent on gm crops, and vice versa, I don't know why you'd expect this to be a yes or no question. Like almost any other group, some do and some don't.

Is PETA suggesting that ALL meat designated for consumption come from a factory? If so, if this is to be global, then a lot of people will have no income. That worries me.

Why don't you email or call them and ask, instead of spreading FUD? I'm not into PETA, but I'll wager the answer is no, because Newkirk is not stupid. She does not hallucinate economic conditions that do not exist.

The goal is persuading people to admit and recognize moral status of nonhumans. It isn't hard to imagine the basis for this. That goal is not furthered by poverty or hunger, which typically makes humans act toward each other in a kill-or-be-killed fashion, not to mention nonhumans.

On topic, PETA is offering too little money to fund the research, although it may appear attractive to some team as a partial rebate.

Wherever there are two things, there is a relationship. They relate to one another. They relate to one another. Could be how two ideas relate; could be how an idea and a place relate; could be how two people relate.

Well, yes. If you're going to be that diffuse about it, everything is indeed a relationship. I have "relationships" with each of my pencil-sharpener, my mother, my lunch, Henry Kissinger, my kidneys, Socratic reasoning, the F above high C, the Andromeda galaxy and my new Amazon Kindle. Indeed, even the lack of a (non-trivial) relationship is a relationship - it is the trivial relationship, after all.

This is heartwarming. Even so, I assumed the post to be working with an at least modestly deeper conception of what a relationship is than that. I certainly didn't think Mr Galusky was playing tricks with language of the sort you seem to be suggesting.

In particular, I read him as suggesting that the relationship in question is one whose nature has consequences intellectual and ethical for the welfare and flourishing of man and animal. As such, I expressed bewilderment that he held to any conception of the relationship between man and meat that would in fact be better served by the needless killing of a sentient entity than by the manufacture of fake meat.

PETA is best forgotten. I am sympathetic to suffering of animals, but their showy and inefficent campaigns are terrible waste. Want to help animals? Buy food for your local animal shelter, not give it for 20 years-long campaign in Spain which failed to save a single bull.

About meat and lab-grown meat:

99% of animals dying for food production are destroyed during food production chain. Mice and insects killed on fields, animals harmed by fertilizer factories and producing petrol for tractors and lorries.

So vegetarian food is not without killing animals, nor there is a good evidence that vegetarian diet harms animals less. I suppose that eating meat may actually harm less animals. Animal pastures are home to at least some wildlife compared to crop monocultures, and producing plant-based meat supplements burns much petrol and these substitutes are highly modified.

Applied to lab grown meat. Such a vat would consume lots of energy, need spraying with antibiotics, expensive food solution and expensive upkeep. It would be terribly uneconomic and not "green" at all. Better keep an old-fashioned cow in good conditions.

Hopefuly, there are better application of vat-grown muscles - e.g. medical or scientific.

Not to mention more inherent paradoxes of treating animal rights seriously. E.g:

- Most people cannot keep vegetarian diet longer than several months or years. Giving birth to healthy child is especially problematic. So is the whole idea realistic?
- Is it right for animal rights activists to skew and manipulate the truth for their agenda?
- Is it right to give non-human animals more freedom than human animals?
- Should animal right supporters stop USING drugs tested on animals? It is benefiting from animal suffering.
- Should PETA campaign to stop keeping cats, because they require meat-based diet?
- Should we let domestic animals go extinct as no-one wants to keep them?
- Should we abolish wild animals in national parks and reserves? One can argue that national parks are increasingly kept only by active human effort, and wild animals eaten by predators certainly suffer more than in slaughterhouse.

Some of these are humorous, but only because they show inherent flaws of animal rights ideology.

I agree we may have a 'meat addiction', but I think a reasonable (and feasible) solution would be to encourage Americans to eat a moderate amount of meat in their diets. We eat ALOT of meat, more than is nutritionally necessary. I hate to cut into farmer's (very little) profits, but raising fewer livestock would decrease their overhead.

We just don't need to consume half pound or more of meat at every setting. That could yield some health benefits for ourselves and the planet.

we have a poultry farm on our land to raise broilers for a company in Manila.

Since the alternative to "humane" and "green" policies that can't feed 8 billion people is hybrid "green revolution" and GM Crops and high tech cattle/fish/poultry farms that make food cheap enough for poor people to get fat on, I have no problem with artificial meat, if it is cheap and safe.